“Of all the counties surrounding Charlottesville, Nelson County has a lot to offer,” declares Francesca San Giorgio, owner of Four Seasons Realty. “Over the last 12 years since I moved here from Santa Barbara, California, Nelson County has grown in a unique way –not with fast food and large corporate stores but with wineries, breweries and restaurants within the beauty of the mountains and valleys.”
A number of those wineries and breweries have joined together in a collective dubbed Nelson 151. “We’re neighbors, not competitors,” says Elizabeth Smith, Chair of Nelson 151 and owner, with her husband Tony, of Afton Mountain Vineyards. The organization of seven member wineries and three member breweries in Nelson County was launched in the early summer of 2011. “Members must be producers of a product,” she explains, “that is, wineries or breweries. We also have partners that are area businesses from B&Bs to restaurants that wish to help focus our efforts to reach out to visitors.”
Most visitors are from Richmond and the Tidewater region as well as the immediate surrounding area. “We want visitors to know it’s a great way to spend a weekend or a midweek break,” says Smith. “We want to put together a package that people don’t want to miss.”
She says the collaborative effort benefits individual businesses and the county—historically one of the poorest in the commonwealth—takes in additional property taxes, food taxes and retail sales-and-use taxes. “We promote ourselves collectively and every business does better.”
“The importance of Nelson151 in marketing the Rockfish Valley is huge,” says Peter Agelasto, president of the Rockfish Valley Foundation [RVF]. Richmond residents for many years, he and his wife retired to Nelson County. “Not only does it bring tourism dollars to Nelson County, it also helps people connect with the beauty of this place.”
The RVF has recently opened their new Natural History Center Spruce Creek Park just south of Nellysford on route 151 which provides an interesting introduction to the region. “Nelson is a place where time spent outdoors is as much rewarded as is time spent at Nelson 151 venues,” Agelasto adds. “They go together.”
Indeed, tucked up against the mountains with their hiking and skiing trails, Nelson County is ideal for both wine and beer. An AVA is an American Viticultural Area, that is, a designated wine-grape growing region with specific geographic features and boundaries. The Monticello AVA has fertile granite-based clay soil well suited for grapes.
In addition, Nelson has excellent water. Virginia’s only geology trail runs along the Rockfish River about ½ mile south of the Natural History Center. A trail guide explains that the valley aquifer consists of hundreds of feet of cobble through which the ground water seeps over time. The absence of limestone in the formation means that the water is very neutral and therefore perfect for making beer.
Nelson 151 Benefits Entire County
“Nelson 151 is good for business,” says Judy Stiber, a Nelson resident for more than 30 years, as she pours wine at Veritas Vineyard and Winery. “This was a horse-and-cattle farm until the Hodson family from England bought it.” Veritas has a large indoor ballroom all draped in white, which is popular for weddings and receptions. “We had about 75 weddings last year,” Stiber notes. “We also have a summer concert series, a wine dinner and a New Year’s Eve Masked Ball.” Veritas is expanding its vineyards.
Afton Mountain is another winery expanding its vineyards. “This will mean hiring more people,” says owner Smith. “Right now we buy some grapes from other growers in the AVA to produce our nine varieties. We’re small and we like it that way,” she says. They have a pleasant tasting room in a stylish new building that relaxes into the scenery and have picnic tables for visitors.
“We’re definitely seeing more traffic with Nelson 151,” agrees Tim Gorman of Cardinal Point Vineyards and Winery. “Nelson 151 is showing us that it’s to our advantage to be in close proximity. We all need to be wanting to make our wines better and be helpful to our visitors.” He notes that each winery is different and they are quick to recommend each other to visitors seeking something specific.
Cardinal Point has 15 acres in vines and is operated with Gorman’s mother, father, sister and brother. “I planted the grapes in the mid-80s with my Dad who’s a retired Army four-star,” Gorman explains. They first sold their harvests to other wineries, but in 2007 they established Cardinal Point. His sister, Sarah Gorman, runs the business and marketing side while Tim does the growing and winemaking. “I enjoy what I do. I like making wine. I like riding my tractor.”
In another county-supporting role, the members support local charities. “We are all active, as individual businesses and as the Nelson151 collective, in many local charitable works,” says Smith. She cites last year’s “12 Days of Christmas” program where each member took one day and donated all or a portion of their proceeds to a Nelson County charity approved by the Nelson Community Fund.
A Look at Nelson 151 Members
The website www.nelson151.org has more detailed information on these members and partners such as specific vintages, calendars of events, hours, contact numbers and more. The ten members have varying business models. Some host weddings, others feature live music and still others have full lunch or dinner menus. Here are thumbnail sketches of this innovative collaborative. All the wineries are family owned.
Afton Mountain Vineyards was one of the first farm wineries with vines dating back to the 1970s. Owners Elizabeth and Tony Smith operate their venture with their son, Hunter, and they have acquired additional land and planted more vines to expand their own vineyards. “This will mean hiring more people,” says owner Smith. “We prefer to produce wines only from our own grapes so we want to be totally self-sufficient for our wine production. Our focus is on quality over quantity and we like it that way.” They have a pleasant tasting room in a stylish new building that relaxes into the scenery and have picnic tables for visitors.
Family-run Cardinal Point Vineyard and Winery lies in the shadow of Afton Mountain. At least once a month, musical groups grace their small stage to present “Tins for Tunes.” Admission: cash or five cans of food for the Nelson County food bank. They also donate the stage space for a nearby local school to have performances.
After growing grapes for others for many years with about 6.5 acres in vines, Rich and Lynn Davis, Nelson Country residents for more than 30 years, launched Flying Fox Vineyard—named for their fox-shaped weathervane. Visitors are invited to bring a picnic to their picnic area and enjoy local artists on display in the tasting room. “Nelson has rural beauty,” Lynn Davis says, “but everything you need within a short drive.” When they’ve been away, she adds, “It is always so wonderful to get home to Virginia.”
Hill Top Berry Farm and Winery was originally a pick-your-own blackberry farm which expanded to a winery specializing in “True to the Fruit” wines—that is, not blended with grapes—made from blackberries, blueberries, apples, plums, peaches and other fruits. They also produce handcrafted “Honey Meads” from sweet to dry. Berry picking is offered through August 12 with a Blackberry Festival on August 4th.
Margo and David Pollak founded Pollak Vineyards in 2003 with the purchase of a farm of nearly 100 acres. They harvested their first vintage two years later. Today they have 27 acres of French vinifera seeking to make estate-grown French varietals and produce about 5000 cases each year. They have a concert series and have facilities for conferences, weddings, showers and other parties.
Andrew and Patricia Hodson opened Veritas Vineyard and Winery for business in 2002 with the help of their daughter, Emily. They have 34 acres in grapes and in the process of clearing 25 more. Their Starry Nights concert series runs during the summer and they also host weddings either indoors or out with a large ballroom that can hold 250 guests.
Wintergreen Winery was purchased by Jeff and Tamara Stone in 1999. They produce red, white and fruit wines inside a 19th-century farm building and also have a winery gift shop. They sponsor various festivals and there’s a scenic picnic area near the Rockfish River with gourmet picnic fare available for purchase. Wintergreen Winery offers both indoor and outdoor settings for weddings, receptions, special events and private functions. “The Verandah at Wintergreen Winery” is their newly constructed event facility.
Blue Mountain Brewery brews about 2500 barrels (about 80,000 gallons) of handcrafted American ales each year. Visitors can see hops growing on their tall trellises, tour the brewing facilities and enjoy a snack, lunch or dinner and all their breads are made fresh daily at the Goodwin Creed Farm in nearby Afton. The brewery features daily “Happenings” such as a menu special, live music or $1 off all beverages.
Devil’s Backbone brews several varieties with a traditional German-style copper-kettle brewing system and serves it up fresh from a dozen taps in the pub area. Their handsome stone building houses an eatery as well as the pub. This is a nice stop for families, since they also feature homemade root beer and ginger beer on tap and a special menu for youngsters.
Wild Wolf Brewing Company is a family-owned brewery and restaurant featuring its handcrafted beers. Several shops are housed in remodeled tobacco barns on the property and the menu includes vegan and gluten-free fare. Many specials and frequent live music make it a popular spot and Tuesday Trivia Nights are popular.
Blue Toad Pub is an eatery with a children’s playground, lunch and dinner menus. Monthly events menus lists kids-eat-free days plus live music on Friday and Saturday nights. Hops and Vine tours are available on their tour bus.
The Afton Mountain Bed and Breakfast Inn is Orquida and Dan Ingraham’s 1848 Victorian farmhouse with antiques, heart pine floors, and five guest rooms all with wi-fi and private baths.
The Mark Addy Inn is a beautifully restored B&B with six porches and 12 rooms—some pet-friendly. The dining room is open for both breakfast and dinner for Inn guests. They also host weddings, family reunions and other special events.
The Farmhouse at Veritas opened just this past spring and is an easy stroll to Veritas Winery. It was originally built in 1836 and is newly updated with six bedrooms, each room named for a county in England.
A Great Place to Live
“What isn’t great about Nelson?” demands eight-year resident Thomasina Shealey, of Blackrock Harbor Realty. “The cost of living is low and tax assessments last for four years, so you know what you’ll be paying,” she adds. “But most of all, there are magnificent views, hearing birds singing instead of traffic, extraordinary farmers markets and the people are very giving and kind. The pristine beauty is just irreplaceable.
Marilyn and Glenn Pribus often celebrate family events at one of the Nelson 151 venues. They live in Albemarle County near Monticello.